A summer internship program at one of the nation’s premier biomedical research labs puts high school and college students on the front lines of cutting-edge medical research.
It’s a unique internship opportunity with a twofold purpose: increase diversity in medical research and give students a real-life introduction to the work world, a goal under state and national efforts to better prepare students to succeed in college and jobs.
“It used to be, several years back, that if you were an intern you did the dishes,” said Vasanthy Narayanaswami, co-director of the Summer Student Research Program at Children’s Hospital Oakland Research Institute (CHORI). “But I think at a certain point it became clear that is not what research is about. You have to be involved in a research project so students get an idea of what a career in research is like.”
Each year, the summer program is open to high school and college students across the nation who belong to groups that are underrepresented in the medical research field. The students are mentored by top researchers and work alongside them for nine weeks on projects that can lead to new understandings of disease and advances in medicine.
This summer’s group of 40 students participated in research on leukemia, cystic fibrosis, muscle reconstruction using stem cells, the epidemiology of rheumatoid arthritis and dozens more. Their research projects included dizzying titles, such as “The effect of genetic background on phenotype in a mouse model for Smith-Lemli-Opitz Syndrome,” and “Impact of the Aspergillus fumigatus-derived Gliotoxin on airway health.”
“It was honestly amazing to get the results at the end and think, ‘Wow, no one has seen this. I am the first person to put eyes on this,’” said Molly Murphy, a 22-year-old molecular biology major at California State University, Chico, who spent her summer researching cholesterol levels in patients with sickle cell disease. “At school, with structured labs, you don’t have that chance and the excitement of something new.”
The experience was a cut above what Murphy and her lab partner, 17-year-old Catherine Hou, are used to in school, where lab classes are built around structured experiments where the research marches along a predetermined lesson.
“The opportunity to do real research is really hard to find anywhere else,” said Hou, a senior at Mission San Jose High School in Fremont.
The high-stakes experience is part of the mission of the summer program, which has been offered for three decades at the research institute.
Research-based inquiry is lacking in classrooms, said Frans Kuypers, a senior scientist at CHORI and expert in sickle cell disease who has mentored dozens of students over the years.
“The ‘teaching to the test’ kind of approach, which happens a lot in school, they recite what they’re told, or what they have read, rather than really thinking out, ‘How do I get to that answer,’” Kuypers said. “… Being creative and thinking about things and trying to figure things out and having the opportunity to fail is extremely important, and it’s not really part of our (school) curriculum.”
“So I give them nine weeks of the opportunity to fail but to learn from it,” he said.
The laboratory work and the opportunity to use the latest equipment to research projects that could ultimately lead to cures or advances in the understanding of disease was a highlight for students.
“This is my first time jumping into something like this,” said Elleanor Pangilinan, 19, who spent the summer researching how a harmful bacteria called Pseudomonas aeruginosa impacts the airways of cystic fibrosis patients. Pangilinan transferred into University of California, Davis this fall from Contra Costa College in San Pablo.
She and her lab mates, Cupertino High School senior Gopika Hari, 17, and Claremont McKenna College senior Kathryn Echavia, 21, showed off the high-tech Ussing chamber assay – which measures ion movement across the membranes of cells – and other equipment they used in their research. Only weeks before, they had never used such advanced technology.
“Being creative and thinking about things and trying to figure things out and having the opportunity to fail is extremely important, and it’s not really part of our (school) curriculum,” said Frans Kuypers, a senior scientist at CHORI and a research program mentor.
Each research project culminates in an oral presentation, where the students present their work to their peers and other researchers, just as any professional researcher would do. Students also hear lectures and have the opportunity to network with professionals in the field.
The work can have real-world benefits for students: Previous summer students have received credit or co-author citations on medical research papers or articles that stemmed from their work.
Program administrators winnowed down a field of about 70 applicants and selected about 40 students, including about a dozen high school students, for the program this summer. The grant-funded program is free for students, who are selected based on grades (3.0 grade point average or better) and a demonstrated interest in science or a career in the medical field. Students must also come from a group that is underrepresented in the biomedical research field, which includes racial minorities, individuals with disabilities or students from low-income backgrounds. As many as 85 percent of program participants ultimately choose careers in the medical field.
“It’s preparing the students … and giving them a sense of confidence for progressing on,” said Ellen Fung, an assistant research scientist at CHORI who co-directs the internship program with Narayanaswami.
“Not everyone will go into science,” Fung continued, “and that’s OK because we are giving them the basics so they know they have an understanding of what this (career) is. When they go forward, they choose with their eyes wide open.”
Participants said they’ll return to school this year with a new outlook on their courses and better study skills. Students said they’re better at research, note-taking and analyzing information, and have a stronger sense of what it means to work in medicine. Most students said they intend to pursue a career in the field.
“I feel really privileged to get this opportunity as a high school student,” said Sebastian Hurtado, 17, a senior at Bishop O’Dowd High School in Oakland. Hurtado spent the summer working on a literature review of a rare type of pancreatic cancer in children.
“This really gives you a good opportunity and a glimpse into the world of a real-life medical and clinical researcher,” he said. “Gaining these opportunities and being able to get a glimpse into this world at a young age is really important.”